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Waking Up to Dumbing Down

Chronicles readers may be rather tired of hearing about "dumbing down," but the ugly term is just now starting to attain cliché status in Britain. Conservative newspapers like the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have begun to talk about dumbing down recently, in reporting, for example, that almost 200,000 children entering British secondary schools (11- and 12-year-olds) could not spell "difficult" and that almost one in ten believed that Victoria was the queen who so resolutely opposed the Spanish Armada.

Newspapers on the left, such as the Guardian, also use the term, though usually to deny that the phenomenon exists. But while it is certainly possible to overreact to dumbing down, or to use the phrase as a mask for intellectual and social snobbery, the evidence that ideologically motivated or incompetent teaching has, in the words of the quondam head of the United Kingdom's Office for Standards in Education, "betrayed a generation " is simply overwhelming. And, of course, the phenomenon is not confined to schools, but affects virtually every aspect of life in Britain.

While dumbing down is attributable to several factors, the most important cause is the decline of "high culture"; to use the term today identifies you as an eccentric, snob, or even a dangerous reactionary. Nowadays, large numbers of people (at least in the media,...

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